College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #748 to #745

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748. The Kinks, State of Confusion (1983)

On the U.S. singles chart, the nineteen-seventies were rough for the Kinks. Previously shoulder to shoulder with the Who on the tier just below the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on the pyramid of British Invasion greats, the Kinks reached the Billboard Top 10 with the 1970 single “Lola,” then barely saw any action on the Hot 100 for the remainder of the decade, despite releasing albums at a steady clip. The group remained a mainstay of the cooler album rock radio stations, but broader commercial success mostly eluded them until “Come Dancing,” the lead single from State of Confusion, equalled their previous chart peak, climbing as high as #6.

Tempting as it is to position “Come Dancing” as a markedly different song for a band that specialized in bruising rock cynicism, there was also a regular dose of a charming sentiment to the songwriting of Ray Davies. Besides, the wistful recollection of an older sister’s regular excursions to a dance palace in her youth are also scalded with a firm but not unkind reminder that the passage of time inevitably shunts joyful freedom to the side: “And there’s a car park where the pally used to stand/ My sister’s married and she lives on an estate/ Her daughters go out, now it’s her turn to wait/ She knows they get away with things she never could.” Rather than an aberration, the case can be made that the Kinks claimed one of their biggest U.S. hits with a track that properly showcased the band’s sensibility.

The almost Bryan Ferry-esque “Don’t Forget to Dance” was issued as the second single and was positioned as a de facto sequel, all the way to recurring characters in the requisite music video. Aside from the dalliances with heartfelt nostalgia, much of State of Confusion is primarily concerned with a weary, agitated assessment of modern life, typified by the gnarly litany of indignities in the title cut and the bounding lament “Young Conservatives,” which probably requires little explanation not already provided by the title. The band is largely in fine form, showing that nineteen albums in they could still uncork a road house blazer such as “Bernadette.” But it also remains true that no legacy acts escaped the eighties entirely unscathed. The melancholy ballad “Property” is coated with a few too many studio baubles of the era.

“Come Dancing” was the last significant U.S. hit for the Kinks. Several more albums followed State of Confusion, all to a dwindling audience. Although the band had stuck it out across brutal feuding (especially between Davies and his bandmate and brother, Dave Davies), but the mounting indifference finally did them in. There’s been nothing new from the Kinks since the mid-nineteen-nineties. Supposedly, that will change sometime soon, but any reports of a reunion with this particular band are best met with a healthy skepticism.

 

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747. 10,000 Maniacs, The Wishing Chair (1985)

In the early nineteen-eighties, a pleasant little band called Still Life played the various haunts of Jamestown, New York. As was the case for such fledgling the acts, they cycled through members. The guitarist John Lombardo played with them every once in a while and impressed enough that he was eventually asked to join full-time. And then there was the seventeen-year-old who worked at the local health food store. She had a pretty voice and was invited to sing with the band on a few songs, and that’s how Natalie Merchant joined the band.

Merchant eventually took over lead vocals duties all on her own and wrote most of the group’s lyrics as Lombardo took the lead on crafting the music. The band changed their name to Burn Victims, but then decided to instead take moniker inspiration from the Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter film Two Thousand Maniacs! By the time they released their debut album, Secrets of the I Ching, on their own label, the band was officially known as 10,000 Maniacs. After some modest but loving attention on the independent music scene, they were snapped up by Elektra Records. Recorded in London with storied producer Joe Boyd at about the same time he helped deliver Fables of the Reconstruction with R.E.M., The Wishing Chair became the major label debut of 10,000 Maniacs.

Lead track “Can’t Ignore the Train” establishes the model: trotting folk-pop with crisp production and Merchant‘s pristine vocals gliding above it all. In the lingering hangover of post-punk and new wave, and squarely among the jangly Americana dominating college rock, 10,000 Maniacs sounded like practically no one else. They could occasionally dip their ring-bedecked toes in odder waters — as evidenced by the background ethereal burbling, like a lava lamp playing a theremin, on “Tension Makes a Tangle” — but the prevailing sound was a brand of gentle, reassuring pop.

Even the comparatively thumping “Scorpio Rising” has a calming quality. In a nifty paradox that remained true during the band’s most notable run, that tincture of melodic sweetness could obscure the thorny poetry of Merchant‘s lyrics (“Save the pistol/ Save the cynics tongue/ Save the cool white stare/ And treat me to an honest face sometime”), leading simultaneously to a fine friction and the stealthy gift of delayed discovery. The plunking and pinging “Cotton Alley” works in a similar fashion, though even the lyrics provide the sneaky pivot, spiking jaunty nostalgia (“Tied my laces up together/ When I fell/ You laughed/ Until your belly was sore”) with hints of memories that are far darker (“Can you hear me scream/ In Cotton Alley”).

Merchant is also still finding her political pointedness on The Wishing Chair“Maddox Table” is a mixed emotion reminiscence about the furniture company that once loomed over her hometown, and “Everyone a Puzzle Lover” offers lilting rumination on class inequities. It’s a perspective in progress, but the thoughtfulness that would eventually add yet more distinction to the band’s efforts was already in play. 10,000 Maniacs make a quiet, refined assertion of talent on The Wishing Chair. One album later, they’d make it clear that talent was only going to grow.

 

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746. The Blasters, The Blasters (1981)

Formed in California in the late nineteen-seventies, the Blasters were part of a small but fiery movement of bands that took crafted their own version of classic rock ‘n’ roll songs and then played them like they had just been yanked from the blast furnace of foundational punk. Driven by ace guitarist Dave Alvin (and notably featuring his brother, Phil, on lead vocals), the Blasters delivered a wild, careening ride. It’s hard to say if a recording studio was ever going to serve them as well as a rickety, whiskey-soaked bar ever would, but their self-titled effort gives it a good go.

The Blasters is actually the band’s sophomore release, but it featured several reworked tracks from their debut, as if the group was going to keep bashing them out until they were as sharp as possible. The cuts are impressive all around, especially as acts of sterling homage. “Marie Marie” could be a Ritchie Valens original, and it’s remarkable that “American Music” wasn’t torn straight from the Chuck Berry songbook. There’s also a nice incorporation of a variety of associated vintage styles, like the bluesy piano on “Hollywood Bed” or the brisk yodeling on the cover of “Never No Mo’ Blues.” The band knew how to bring the fire, but there was also a wise inclination vary the material just enough, leading to bright, unexpected winners, such as the sweet, jittering amble “Border Radio.”

The Blasters had the goods, and they benefited from being on indie label Slash Records right as they started to cave and were essentially swallowed up by Warner Bros., major players who knew exactly how to find an audience for this kind of material. Broad stardom wasn’t likely, but there were plenty of fans ready to cheer loud as the Blasters turned up their amps loud enough to strip the paint off any available wall.

 

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745. Throwing Muses, The Fat Skier (1987)

The Fat Skier was the second EP released by Throwing Muses during 1987, and it came with a gimmick. The first side was pressed to play at the standard LP speed of 33 and 1/3 RPM. It encompassed six new tracks, including the requite one songwriting credit afforded to guitarist Tanya Donnelly, stepsister to the band’s leader, Kristin Hersh. The second side required a turntable adjustment to 45 RPM and contained just one song, a new version of “Soul Soldier” (which appeared in an earlier iteration on their 1986 self-titled full-length debut) stretching to nearly nine minutes.

Hailing from Boston, Throwing Muses held the distinction of being the first U.S. band to sign to beloved U.K. label 4AD, a recording home that allowed the band the latitude for willfully complicated material such as the sonically dense “Garoux es Larmes” and the artful discordance of “And a She-Wolf After the War.” The Fat Skier wasn’t stocked with material likely to knock Whitney Houston or Heart from the top of the charts, but it had a convincing assurance that commercial climbing didn’t matter all that much. Sometimes, daring artistry is its own reward.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs